Who would have ever thought - at least, after having suffered through junior and senior high school English courses - that grammar could be fun? June Casagrande’s newest book, Mortal Syntax , her humorous and educational follow up to Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, proves that even something as potentially dry and boring as grammar can be interesting. It’s all in the presentation. Keeping the chapters in Mortal Syntax short, to the point, and sweetened with her delightfully twisted sense of humor helps the medicine go down, and you just might learn a thing or two along the way as well as being entertained by Casagrande’s cultural references and wit.
You may also recognize the inner grammar snob in yourself, or notice a personal pet peeve you have regarding incorrect word usage shared by others. The book starts with a section titled “The Biggies” and includes further sections titled “Adverb Adversity,” “Verbal Abuse” and “Noun Sequitur,” among others. It’s a great supplemental guidebook for students and teachers, definitely a worthwhile read for really everyone who speaks and writes English.
Along the rocky road to Grammatical Nirvana, the author references such TV shows as The Colbert Report, The Simpsons, Seinfield and The Office. For instance, one chapter’s title, “That Principal Skinner is pure milktoast,” refers to Bart and Lisa Simpson’s principal. Casagrande quotes from Homer’s boss:
Burns: That Principal Skinner is pure milquetoast.
If you find one or two (or more) nits to pick with the author as you read (as I myself did), that’s a part of the pleasure of reading the book. Reading Mortal Syntax is a participatory type of experience, and can be cathartic.
My nit du jour has to do with a chapter entitled “How fortuitous that your Haliburton stock has skyrocketed.” The usage of “fortuitous” in this example is, Casagrande writes, “Bad”. She has several sources who back her up and are “unanimous”. However, two dictionaries in which I checked the definition of “fortuitous” both list meanings much the same as “fortunate”, having to do with luck and “bringing or indicating good fortune.”
Am I and the two sources I checked right or wrong? Who am I to say? As you read Mortal Syntax , one thing you begin to realize (if you hadn’t known already) is that often highly respected sources disagree on language usage and word choices, and each source’s arguments can be well reasoned and logical yet contradictory. Even the “experts” don’t always reach the same conclusions about what is “correct” when it comes to grammar. And, that’s okay - there doesn’t always need to be a cut-and-dried yea or nay about whether you, for example, or your teachers or parents have the definitive, final answer regarding language usage. That’s just one of the numerous life and grammar lessons that Mortal Syntax and Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies teach. I highly recommend both books to anyone who speaks, writes, and reads the English language.